Growing big ideas: Ecopolis unveils restorative model for IC development

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After an initial meeting last May, the Ecopolis in Iowa City is becoming a reality. About 50 people met at Beadology on Tuesday to share ideas for transitioning Iowa City development, planning and policy towards greener, more sustainable, and less energy-dependent modes.

The project, a series of community forums, discussions and actions, is organized by Rockne Cole, Erica Damman, Miriam Alarcón Avila, Grant Schultz, Mara Kardas-Nelson, Carla Paciotto and Jeff Biggers. According to the organizers, an Ecopolis is a regenerative city-scape that has been weaned from industrial inputs and fossil fuel dependency, transitioned away from the city-state called the “Petropolis,” which is a petroleum-addicted sprawl of development and energy-intensive infrastructure.

Schultz, a self-professed “land hacker,” tree farmer and permaculture activist who runs Versaland in rural Iowa City, spoke with the urban renewalists who are seeking to transform the fertile land of the area they see as maintained by gas-powered engines, and covered in traffic lanes, parking ramps and single-dwelling homes with residents who drive to buy imported food at big-box retailers.

He called for Iowa City residents to virtually ignore codes and regulations that he said inhibited entrepreneurism and sustainable movements. He advocated the model of the Better Block movement which orchestrates direct action in blighted districts to sidestep the red tape of permits and zoning rules for neighborhood revitalization.

The most urgent concern for Schultz is to replenish the food-supply chain internally by supplementing the mere 22 plots of community gardens here. “We should be ashamed of ourselves,” he said of the current availability of public gardens in town.

Iowa City currently imports about 90 percent of its food, but Schultz’s vision is to give 90 percent of Iowa City residents access to a community garden within one mile of their homes by the spring of 2016.

“We’re trying to accelerate projects now that should have begun 10 years ago,” he said in his keynote speech in the back room of Beadology in downtown Iowa City on Tuesday.

His presentation included a look back at the history of Iowa City. Before it was a “Petropolis,” he said it was an “Agropolis,” which supplied its own food from local sources.

“We’re designing for an uncertain future,” he said, highlighting the alternating flood and drought cycles of the Iowa climate that makes diversification of land use an imperative rule.

“Nature intrinsically cycles the elements, an Ecopolis mimics nature,” he noted.

Grant Schultz presents his ideas on land hacking at Ecopolis. Photo courtesy of Miriam Alarcón Avila
Grant Schultz presents his ideas on land hacking at Ecopolis. — photo courtesy of Miriam Alarcón Avila

His own farm, Versaland, in its second year of operation, is a hilly 145 acres that he’s contoured with steppes, swales and rows of trees. He planted 28,000 trees to section the property he calls a farm, lab and homestead. Using the contours of the hills, his land will trap water into several ponds-to-be, instead of shunting it away from the land, which is the common practice in the drainage tiled fields of Iowa corn and soy production. Water that is quickly shed off properties and into streams, as is common in industrialized agriculture, contributes to soil erosion and flash flooding.

He also demonstrated how trees can act like a fence if planted tightly, eliminating the need for animal fencing consisting of wires and metal posts or treated lumber.

Never once mentioning global warming or climate change, Schultz stuck to concrete examples and told the crowd of food, environment and urban planning activists, “We need to do things now, and faster.”

He was introduced by Jeff Biggers, a writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa’s Office of Sustainability, and Miriam Alarcón Avila, a food activist who works for the New Pioneer Co-op.

“It’s not a dream,” Avila said when she described the goals of the Ecopolis group, “We’re not talking about dreams. We’re here to talk about what we’re doing now.”

The group will hold a bike ride on Friday, Dec. 5 at 5:15 p.m. and another community discussion about solar power on January 13.

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